In the exhibition, 'One God - Abraham’s Legacy on the Nile’, three museums collaborate to explore the historical coexistence of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Egypt: the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, the Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst, and the Museum für Islamische Kunst.
Here the exhibition curators - Friederike Seyfried, Cäcilia Fluck and Gisela Helmecke - talk about God and the world.
What is the exhibition 'One God - Abraham’s Legacy on the Nile’ about?
Friederike Seyfried: "We want to illustrate how community life developed within Judaism, Christianity and Islam in Egypt, from the time of the Romans until well into the Middle Ages. We use selected themes to trace some aspects of the history of these three revealed religions. A crucial thing which they all share is that the tenets of their respective beliefs are laid down in sacred texts.”
Why the special focus on Egypt?
Cäcilia Fluck: "That has to do with the origins of the exhibition. It began with an enquiry from Egypt in 2010. The Coptic Museum in Cairo mounted an exhibition on Christian-Egyptian art to mark its 100th anniversary. It was a fantastic special exhibition and our Egyptian colleagues suggested bringing it to Berlin. The concept wasn’t realised in exactly the same way over here. Instead, we broadened it out to include Islam and Judaism too, since Egypt has one of the longest shared histories of all three religions.
How far back does the exhibition go?
Friederike Seyfried: As early as the 5th century BCE, there was a Jewish settlement on the Nile island of Elephantine. It’s well attested archeologically and historically. The Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung also holds an amazing collection of Aramaic texts which originated from there. The Jewish roots go furthest back. Then, during the Imperial Roman period, Egypt gradually became Christianised. Last of all came Islam, following the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs.
What do you think of the topicality the exhibition has acquired, as a result of the political situation in many parts of the world today?
Gisela Helmecke: It’s a development we couldn’t have anticipated when we first began to plan the exhibition. The first time we really thought about it was in 2011 - the year of the Arab Spring and the first revolution in Egypt, and after that the situation changed very rapidly. Of course, it had implications for our work too. For one thing, we had to give up the idea of borrowing exhibits from Egypt. Our Egyptian colleagues have nevertheless taken a close interest in the project from the outset and there’s an idea afoot in Cairo for staging a parallel exhibition either there or Alexandria. Our colleagues in Egypt have plenty of exhibits of their own to show, but they could make use of our preparatory work. It hasn’t entirely been ruled out, though, that we might still borrow objects from Egypt in future. There is to be a follow-on exhibition in a slightly different format in the Bode-Museum, which will also be a collaboration between our three museums.
How are the interconnections and shared history illustrated in the exhibition?
Cäcilia Fluck: It’s not an easy theme to illustrate and we had to think very carefully about how much we could expect our audience to know already. It’s not an exhibition of 'masterpieces’ - although there are some valuable items on display. Above all it’s about getting complex subject matter across. We begin in Alexandria, a huge metropolis and cosmopolitan melting pot, and then start the main tour by introducing Abraham, the forefather of all three monotheistic religions. We want to engage our visitors by posing questions, which will then be answered by the texts and objects. But it won’t be purely about religion. A key focus of the exhibition is the everyday life of Egyptian people, where religion is not at the forefront. Clothing, everyday objects, birth and death are some of our themes.
Do you also look at conflicts?
Gisela Helmecke: Of course there were conflicts, then as now. There will be a display wall with texts showing how all the religious communities, at one time or another in their history, were quarrelling amongst themselves. But we also want to give a sense of the constant outside pressure they were under. The Jews, like the early Christians, had a hard time under Imperial Rome. In the first century the Jewish community in Alexandria was almost wiped out and only re-established itself in the late 3rd century, when Christianity was slowly developing into the state religion. From the 10th to the 12th century, under the Fatimids, the Jews even experienced a time of peace and prosperity, for the first time since antiquity.
Will there be contemporary examples in the exhibition?
Friederike Seyfried: The contemporary situation is addressed by documentary films which we commissioned in 2014 for the exhibition. The films build a bridge to the present day and show how very much alive the topic is. This really is about living a religious life in our time.
What do the films show?
Gisela Helmecke: There’s a film about a synagogue in Cairo, an imam explains the Cairo mosque, an abbot gives a tour of the Monastery of St. Macarius in Wadi Natrun, and we learn something about a Coptic church and a Muslim festival in Luxor. What the films show above all is that many traditions survive and also that there are astonishing parallels between the three faith communities. For us the films were an exciting new approach to communicating content.
What can visitors learn from the exhibition?
Cäcilia Fluck: First of all, they are introduced to the three great world religions, with their shared heroes, such as Joseph and the Archangel Gabriel, and their sacred buildings: the synagogue, the church and the mosque. But the exhibition is also quite specifically about ordinary life in the three communities, from the cradle to the grave. It’s very interesting, because it’s particularly here that you sense there was hardly any difference between people; in their everyday lives they all had basically the same problems and the same pleasures. That’s something particularly worth being aware of today and if people come away thinking about that, we will at least have achieved something.
What was it like bringing the three collections together?
Friederike Seyfried: It was quite easy. Not only because our three collections build on one another chronologically, but also because they are all housed on the Museumsinsel. Working together, we developed a wonderful team spirit.
Will you be working together more often in future?
All three: "Yes!” Seyfried: "The collections of the various museums on the Museumsinsel are in any case very interrelated and 'One God’ shows how fruitful collaboration can be. It was a great pleasure for us and we hope that visitors will enjoy the exhibition too."